What billionaire Jeff Greene knows that our downtown master plan does not

[Join us next week for the first ever Walkable Wednesday happy hour from 5:30 – 6:30 pm on January 29th at Bradley’s!]

I live downtown in a mixed-use building delivered to market in 2009. It’s a wonderful place to live, but as so many buildings downtown, the ground floor commercial space has struggled; in fact, the entire ground floor has remained vacant since it was built. Then I saw this notice on one of the vacant storefronts:

jeff greene permit convert retail space city palms
Building permit

So it looks like my mixed-use building may become single-use: residential. Jeff Greene’s group is converting ground floor commercial space into residential loft units. I welcome this development because it means people occupying these spaces and more street surveillance, a positive for the street and the neighborhood. Would I have preferred to have a restaurant or corner store at one of these spaces? Sure. But those uses are not market supported currently, and I’d much rather have a space be occupied than empty.

Walk downtown and observe which buildings have successful, well occupied ground floor space and which do not. Those buildings with large commercial space struggle to lease space (The Strand, The Prado) whereas The Whitney and One City Plaza have successfully leased up the smaller live/work spaces at ground floor. Some of these live/work lofts are used as residences, and some are affordable storefronts for entrepreneurs who want to try a business. The strength of these live/work units is that they can be used as commercial space or residential. This flexibility is resiliency; if the original use intended is no longer feasible, it’s possible to build out the space to try something else.

But what about undesirable uses making for bad neighbors? Spillover effects such as noise need not be dictated by a restrictive code. If there’s one thing condominium associations do well, it is carefully restricting and regulating what types of businesses are permitted in their commercial space. Condo boards are going to be more restrictive and protective of the building than a planner could ever hope to be! The appropriate level at which to regulate the ground floor uses is that of the condominium association.

The West Palm Beach Downtown Action Committee has wisely decided to loosen some of the use restrictions along Rosemary Avenue to allow for commercial office space instead of requiring retail space. A real estate broker is moving into the ground floor of 610 Clematis along Rosemary as a result. Planners need to be less concerned with what goes on inside private space, but more concerned about how private space interacts with the public realm – its interface. To speak as an economist, the former is private good, whereas the latter is a public good (nonexcludable, nonrival). Having active uses at ground floor and street activity is desirable, but should be driven by what the market demands, rather than the dictates of a demand-forecast algorithm. 

As fellow blogger Edward Erfurt has pointed out, rather than requiring mixture of uses vertically in a building, we can also achieve mixed use horizontally. We shouldn’t get too insistent on requiring mixed-use buildings, but we should insist on a very good frontage and activity at the street level, whatever the use. That’s what makes for great streets.




  1. Brian M

    The challenge, of course, is non-active uses can preclude the development of a core of active uses. For example, in a struggling downtown, martial arts studios are attracted to cheap rent but don’t provide a lot of activity for the street. Or even customers, because it is usually mothers hustling their young kids from the lessons to the car.

    • Thanks for the comment Brian. Not being a trained planner, I wonder about the definition of ‘active use’. It seems to me that our concern should be more on the facade of the building and ensuring it has a face on the street, rather than overcoding about what use should go here or there. Can you elaborate on active uses? Thanks.

  2. Pingback: How to make downtown retail work? Here are a few ideas | Walkable West Palm Beach

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